When talking about democratic societies, sooner or later the phrase “political parties” will come up. But these are a specific manifestation of something found in many forms of government, which is the grouping of people into political factions. So this week, we’ll take a broader look at that phenomenon!
We’re tribal monkeys at heart, which means that as our groups grow larger, we instinctively organize ourselves into sub-groups. In politics, two specific impulses are at play: first, the desire to band together with like-minded others for support, and second, the desire to follow the strongest monkey, who can make sure you get the good bananas. This means that factions form both as a way of advancing a specific agenda (e.g. pursuing alliance with or war against another country) and as a way of reaping personal benefit (if I’m a supporter of someone with power, I’ll gain power and rewards myself).
Monarchs have often been deeply wary of factions in their courts, and with good reason. The stronger a faction grows, the more force it can exert, which diminishes the ruler’s own control; at the extreme end, there have been eras where the sovereign is little more than a figurehead, with all the real authority resting in the hands of a powerful faction leader. One of the ways to forestall this is to play different factions off each other, relying on their rivalry to keep anyone from growing too tall . . . but that takes an adept political hand, and even when it succeeds, it can lead to internecine strife that weakens the state. It doesn’t generally look good when the monarch’s courtiers are murdering each other in the streets.
Because of this, some of them have tried to prevent the formation of factions at all. Good luck with that! To some extent it can be done; one of the reasons the imperial Chinese government often had a policy of stationing officials away from their home provinces was to avoid networks of influence forming that could challenge the throne. The failure mode of this approach involves the rise of breakaway states, or provincial rebellions that bring the military power of the borderinward to threaten the capital. To avoid that, you cycle your officials through different postings — memory wants me to say this was done in ancient Egypt, though I’m not sure of that — which disrupts any plans they may be building locally. But of course that means your officials never build up a deep understanding of the areas they administer; you sacrifice the finer points of effective government in exchange for central stability.
Those sorts of factions, though, tend to be more ad-hoc things, built around specific circumstances and gone when the circumstances no longer apply. When the English king is thinking of marrying a Spanish princess for political alliance, there will probably be pro-Spanish and anti-Spanish factions at court, one trying to facilitate the marriage, the other to block it and offer up tempting alternatives. When the Duke of Buckingham is the king’s influential favorite, people will speak of “Buckingham’s party” to mean the duke’s friends and sycophants. Twenty years later, the crown prince is considering a French princess and the Duke of Buckingham is dead, and so the factions have changed.
This plays out differently in a democracy, because the road to power is different. While a faction there will still organize itself around an agenda, the function of a democratic political party is to get its candidates elected to office. A faction in a monarchical court may try to acquire positions of authority for its members (because those usually bring wealth and other benefits), but it doesn’t operate as a kind of brand identity in quite the same way. Voters in a democracy know that if they vote for a candidate from X party, they’ll get someone who can more or less be relied upon to try and advance a particular set of priorities.
Where the needle falls on that “more or less” spectrum can be highly variable. For complex reasons, the United States has generally been dominated by two political parties at a time, though not always the same two. Dividing the political field in half like that means that, by necessity, both dominant parties are very broad, and strange associations sometimes result. In other countries, there are many more parties with meaningful amounts of influence — but that means it’s harder for any single one of them to gain control of the government, and so sometimes after an election they’re forced to make alliances with other parties to keep things running. In both situations you end up with a broad array of priorities and officials who probably only check a subset of the boxes, but in a multi-party system, the “brand identity” of a given party tends to be a little more clearly defined.
The men who wrote the United States Constitution loathed the idea of political parties. To their way of thinking, factionalism is divisive — and they’re not wrong! But it’s also probably inevitable. The U.S. didn’t even manage to get through two party-less decades before groups started forming around some of the most prominent leaders of the time (a process made more familiar to everyone who slept through their U.S. history class by the musical Hamilton). Once that ball got rolling, there was no stopping it; within a few years the national factions had spread down into the states, and soon party identity became a feature of elections at nearly every level of government.
Especially once democracy starts operating on a mass scale, this may be not only inevitable, but necessary. We elect representatives to run our governments for us because we can’t all stay informed on every single subject that needs attending to; we organize our representatives into parties because it makes it easier to find the people who will run the government at least vaguely the way we want them to. (When there are primaries to choose which candidate each party will back, it also limits the number of options voters have to sift through.) Does this whole process simplify things in some unfortunate ways? Definitely. We lose some of the fine-grained control we might otherwise have had. But the alternative would be to pour time and energy we may not have into studying every candidate and issue individually. While that may be the ideal of democratic government, the ideal runs aground very fast on pragmatic reality.
And so the factions continue.